March 24, 2011By Tim Simard Observer staff
The future of education, burgeoning budget deficits, nuclear fears, and the United States’ recent involvement in Libya are complicated subjects on the minds of many government and history students at Champlain Valley Union High School.
And Sen. Bernie Sanders spent roughly an hour explaining these issues, answering questions and engaging in a dialogue during a visit to the school Tuesday morning.
During the special class, Sanders asked many questions of the juniors and seniors on hand, frequently asking them to further explain their positions. In return, he received several queries back about his positions on national and foreign issues.
“I’m going to be hard on you guys,” said Sanders, with the hint of a smile. “I’m a tough teacher.”
Sanders visited CVU to recognize several students’ efforts in last December’s State of the Union essay contest he sponsored for high school students. The contest asked students to write their own State of the Union address and focus on national policies, but do so in a limited number of words. Five of the 11 top finalists were from CVU, prompting Sanders’ stopover.
“I visit high schools often and I want these kids to know they live in a democracy while others don’t,” Sanders said after the meeting. “These kids have a right to ask their elected officials questions.”
Many students posed questions related to recent world events, with some openly disagreeing with Vermont’s Independent senator in the areas of balancing the federal budget and how to proceed on Vermont Yankee’s potential relicensing.
While Sanders and the students touched on a number of topics, one that drew much discussion centered on how the country pays for health care. He explained how, in Europe, taxpayers pay into government health plans ensuring all citizens are covered. The other side of this issue is that Europeans pay far more taxes, he said.
But even as Americans are taxed less, “our health care system is the most expensive in the world, by far,” Sanders said.
Some students advocated that the United States has a duty as a society to help others in need. Others stated the American system should allow for more competition to drive costs down. This discussion merged into one about the country’s tax structure and how best the U.S. can close its more than trillion dollar budget deficit.
A few students questioned recent proposals in Congress, including statements made by Sanders, to tax millionaires as a way to close budget gaps.
“I don’t think it’s conscionable to take that money away from people just because they make a lot,” said student Paul Danyow.
Sanders, admitting he’s doing “what Paul doesn’t want me to do,” explained his idea for a surtax on families earning more than $1 million a year, and to close loopholes that exist for other top wage earners. He said he opposes Republican lawmakers’ efforts to cut social services and other programs.
Another topic that drew spirited discussion focused on Nuclear Energy. With Japan’s nuclear program facing serious problems as a result of the recent earthquake and tsunami, along with the ongoing debate on Vermont Yankee, a few students spoke in favor of finding renewable energy sources immediately.
“We’re not thinking 50 to 100 years into the future like we should be,” said student Kate Meyer.
Sanders said, while nuclear energy might be considered clean as it does not dispense dangerous chemicals into the atmosphere, its radioactive risks outweigh its necessity.
At the end of the talk, as the CVU class buzzer sounded, Sanders said he enjoyed his discussion with the students and appreciated their varied viewpoints. He also urged students to pay attention to world and national issues that affect them.
“You live in a democratic society,” Sanders said. “Be actively involved.”